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Operation Aerial

The Untold Story of the Evacuations from France in June 1940

Dunkirk resonates through British history. The “miracle of deliverance”, as Prime Minister Winston Churchill described the evacuation of nearly 340,000 troops from the small Channel port, in most people’s minds marks the end of British involvement in France in 1940.

Dunkirk fell to the advancing German forces on 4 June 1940 but tens of thousands of troops and British civilians were still in France. By the end of June a further 220,000 had been brought back to England.

The story of that second miracle has never been fully told.

There are military history books dealing with the fate of the British Expeditionary Force in France after Dunkirk, especially the encirclement and capture of the Highland Division at Saint Valery-en-Caux. This was only part of the story, however.

Dunkirk was part of Operation Dynamo. As the curtain came down on that Churchill actually ordered 11,000 more troops to France to support a French plan to defend the Breton peninsula. No sooner had they arrived on French soil than that plan evaporated and Operation Cycle was launched to bring them home.

Cover design for Operation Aerial: Churchill’s Second Miracle of Deliverance. The ISBN is 978-1781220221

That was merely the prelude to Operation Aerial. During the remainder of June 1940 the Royal Navy, supported by a fleet of merchant navy ships, worked its way down the western coast of France trying to keep one step ahead of the Germans. As one port was captured they moved down the coast to the next from Cherbourg, to St Malo, to Brest, to Saint-Nazaire, to Lorient, to La Rochelle, to Bordeaux, to Bayonne and finally Saint-Jean-de-Luz.

When France, by then led by Marshall Petain, finally surrendered on 22 June the evacuation continued so that by the end of June nearly 200,000 British, French, Polish and Czech troops were safely back in the UK. Leaving France with them were over 20,000 civilians, each with their own dramatic story of fleeing from the Nazis.

There are several reasons why Operation Aerial is almost unknown alongside Operation Dynamo.

First, it doesn’t have the romance of the little ships. The Bay of Biscay was no place for the pleasure craft and tiny ships that put themselves in the firing line at Dunkirk. Second, it wasn’t focused on one port, so is a more complex, fast-moving story as Hitler’s forces fought their way down France’s western coast.

The biggest reason, however, is the disaster of the Lancastria, sunk by German dive-bombers as it left Saint-Nazaire with over 6000 troops on board. It sunk quickly and fewer than 2500 were saved, making it the largest loss of life in British maritime history. Churchill ordered news of this to be withheld, fearing that the boost Dunkirk had given to public morale would be seriously undermined if such a catastrophic loss of life was reported. The sinking did not remain secret for long as detailed accounts and pictures appeared in newspapers and magazines a few weeks later but by then the British people were firmly focussed on home defence.

Interest in the evacuations tailed off quickly in the days after the loss of the Lancastria and the formal surrender of France but many thousands were still successfully repatriated.

There are many personal stories that bring the final retreat from France in June 1940 vividly to life.

Now it is time those stories were told.

© David Worsfold 2016

The Secret History of WW2, a new documentary series from Channel 5 Select, featured David talking about Operation Aerial in its first episode broadcast on Tuesday 4 May 2021.

• Among the stories that will feature will be those of the nurses who served on the hospital ships evacuating the troops from France. Some of those appeared in an article David wrote for The History Magazine in October 2018 – Nurses at War.

• David appeared on BBC TV in June 2020 discussing the part the Little Ships of Jersey played in the evacuation of the demolition crews from St Malo – View report

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Update January 2021. The complete manuscript is now with the publisher, Sabrestorm. 75,000 words, 70 photographs and illustrations and nine specially commissioned maps to help readers understand the rapidly changing situation in France in June 1940. It contains many stories never told before thanks to the relatives and descendants of people who have been kind enough to share stories, diaries and photographs with me. As soon as I have a publication date and pre-order information I will share it here. You can also keep an eye on the Sabrestorm website.

Update September 2021 The book is in the production pipeline and is entitled Operation Aerial: Churchill’s Second Miracle of Deliverance. The ISBN is 978-1781220221.

• Update January 2022 Unfortunately, a combination of Covid and production problems delayed the publication of the book. I know many people have pre-ordered it as you have been in touch with me. I can only apologise for the delays which are outside my control. All systems are back up and running at the publisher and it is now moving through the publishing process. As soon as I have a firm publication date I will post it here. In the meantime, many thanks for everyone’s continued interest. I hope it lives up to your expectations!

• Update March 2022 It is full steam ahead now. We are currently reviewing the second set of proofs and have a cover design approved (see above). All being well, it should be in the shops and available on line by the end of June. Nearly there!

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